Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Patrice Brun, Démosthène: rhétorique, pouvoir et corruption à Athènes. Nouvelles biographies historiques. Paris: Armand Colin, 2015. Pp. 336. ISBN 9782200602666. €24.90 (pb).

Reviewed by Susan Lape, University of Southern California (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Given the spate of recent studies, one might wonder whether there is need for yet another Demosthenic biography. However, Patrice Brun's new Démosthène: rhétorique, pouvoir et corruption à Athènes is not exactly a conventional biography.1 Rather, it is part biography and part historiography of biographical writing on Demosthenes and Athenian history as read through a Demosthenic lens. Biographical writing, as is now well known, is fraught with a particular kind of peril, since it imposes a false coherence on a life, i.e. one that the life only acquires in retrospect. 2 Brun explicitly aims to steer clear of at least some of the biographical illusions wrought by Demosthenes' previous biographers and by Demosthenes himself. Throughout, he seeks to detach Demosthenes' story and his speeches from modern tellings of Athenian (and Macedonian) history, particularly for the period between 346-338 BCE. According to Brun, recent studies that challenge or overturn historical narratives associated with Demosthenes, (i.e., that Philip II was a barbarian or that the fourth-century democracy or city was decadent or in decline), make the time ripe for his project.

The book is composed of a short general introduction, nine chapters, and a brief conclusion. The first chapter treats the sources. Brun energizes what might have been a fairly conventional catalogue by spotlighting key historiographical questions. How is it, he wonders, that in historical studies Demosthenes' voice came to drown out those of his opponents? And, how and why, he asks, did a man who was heavily fined for misappropriating public funds become a shining exemplar of democratic citizenship, both in Athens and among the Greco-Roman intelligentsia? As a preliminary to discussing these questions, Brun emphasizes that there is no extant historian for late fourth-century Athens and that the sources are mainly rhetorical: the deliberative and dicanic speeches of Demosthenes and his colleagues. According to Brun, scholarship on Demosthenes has often reproduced the partisan nature of the sources themselves, with scholars weighing in either for or against Demosthenes.

While it might initially seem an odd choice to focus on Demosthenes' Nachleben in the second chapter, the topic offers a fairly seamless transition from the first chapter's review of Demosthenes' imperial reception. Brun is particularly interested in the way historians have tended to see Demosthenes as a champion (or opponent) of values they themselves espouse. The highlight here is his discussion of the way Philip II and Demosthenes were interpreted through the lens of nationalist and ideological struggles taking place in Germany and France between 1870 and 1939.

In the third chapter, Brun reviews Demosthenes' family story and intellectual formation, and the biographical tradition on this period of Demosthenes' life. For Brun, it is obvious that Demosthenes' struggle to regain his patrimony was pivotal in shaping both his character and his career. The need to learn the laws and oratory paved the way for and encouraged his public life. At the same time, the enemies he garnered in the context of the guardian ordeal remained his enemies during his later political activities (79, 80). Brun does not put much stock in the biographical tradition about Demosthenes' speech impediments. His difficulties could not have been so severe, Brun reasons, because he ultimately overcame them to address thousands on the Pynx in an era before speech therapists (84-85).

Despite the title "Athens in 355", chapter four includes a review of Athenian history from the end of the Peloponnesian War to the end of the Social War. Although the city was virtually bankrupt when Demosthenes entered the political arena, Brun stresses that he and other speakers were "haunted by the ghost of empire." In consequence, they looked to the city's former grandeur as a guide to contemporary policy. In addition to being unrealistic in terms of the fiscal situation, Demosthenes' view of the past was highly revisionist and whitewashed, as Brun emphasizes (113). Demosthenes idealized the fifth-century Athenian empire, imagining that membership in it was based on consent to Athenian domination rather than coercion (111). Finally, Brun also examines the career of Eubulus and finds that scholarly claims of his pacificism have been greatly exaggerated and are largely a product of accepting Demosthenes' rhetoric as history.

In chapter five, "Finding his Way, 355-348", Brun charts the rise of Philip of Macedon's and Demosthenes' political careers. Brun stresses that Demosthenes' early career was unsuccessful, largely due to his dedication to an outdated imperialism. That said, Brun shows that Athens' quest for hegemony was far from dead, regardless of its limited sphere of operation. For example, in 353, the Athenian general Timotheus seized the city of Sestos on the Thracian Chersonese and killed all the adult males, a move which helps explain why so many Greek cities might have seen Philip II as a champion against Athens.

In chapter six, "The Necessary Peace: 348-346" Brun considers the process that led to the Peace of Philocrates, drawing on the embassy speeches (Dem. 19 & Aes. 2). Following Aeschines, Brun finds that Demosthenes was initially in favor of the peace, rather than an intractable opponent. Brun highlights, however, that when the epigraphic evidence is considered, Athens in 346 appears not as a polis paralyzed with fear, but rather as a polis determined to defend itself.

Chapter seven continues the work of disentangling Demosthenes' voice from the history of the Peace of Philocrates and its aftermath. Brun shows that, contrary to Demosthenes' claims, there was neither a pro-Macedonian party in Athens nor a group of pacificists. Similarly, he emphasizes that Demosthenes was not the sole architect of the war policy, but rather was late in jumping on the bandwagon. Brun also fills out the picture of Athens in the 340s by turning to inscriptions, a form of evidence often lacking in Demosthenic studies because of Demosthenes' curious absence from the extant remains. Finally, Brun stresses that the conflict between Athens and Macedon was not a struggle between Greeks and foreign oppressors, as Demosthenes would have it, but rather an inter-Greek contest for hegemony between imperial powers. To illustrate the point, he engages in a thought experiment, considering what would have happened had Athens and Thebes won at Chaeronea. Nothing, according to Brun, would have fundamentally changed. That is, Brun argues that the abiding significance of agonism as a cultural value would have undermined any lasting cooperation between the Greek cities; an Athenian and Theban victory would have simply opened a new chapter in the struggle for domination.

Chapter eight explores Demosthenes' political activity after Chaeronea and its historiography down to 326 BCE. Scholars of the period have often asked whether Demosthenes remained politically preeminent after the defeat. Given the nature of the evidence, those who conclude that Demosthenes continued to orchestrate Athenian policy are forced to assume, à la Plutarch, that he did so covertly, using straw men to propose his policy measures. For Brun, this hypothesis is misguided, informed by a kind of "leader worship." The fact that the two major pieces of legislation we know of were proposed by relative political unknowns is, for Brun, a sign of the likely absence of any single charismatic political leader in post-Chaeronea Athens. Like other recent scholarship, therefore, Brun's work challenges the label "Lycurgan Athens."

The highlight of the chapter, however, is the analysis of the Crown trial, which was not, according to Brun, the trial of the century that Demosthenes' biographers would later claim it to be, at least for the contemporary world outside Athens. Brun likens Demosthenes' rhetorical strategy to an economic policy that privatizes profits and nationalizes losses. In Brun's view, ,Demosthenes individualized the supposed advantages he won over Philip, diplomatic and moral, and collectivized the decisions that led to the defeat. Paradoxically, the losers turned out to be the real winners.

Athens enjoyed a welcome period of peace and ease during Alexander's campaigns that lasted, according to Brun, until his announced return. With Alexander's return came renewed expressions of royal authority, which created problems for Athens in the form of the exile decree and for others, notably Harpalos, Alexander's wayward treasurer in Babylon, who absconded with a fortune rather than waiting to face Alexander. In chapter nine "Harpalosgate," Brun discusses Harpalos' arrival in Athens, his imprisonment, and the seizure of his stolen treasure. As is well known, when Harpalos escaped from Athens, some of the treasure went missing, and one of those blamed for embezzling it was Demosthenes. After being convicted of embezzling twenty talents, Demosthenes went into exile. For Brun the issue is less to determine whether he was guilty or not than to understand the how accusations of corruption operated in Athenian politics. Accepting "gifts," he reminds us, only became illegal when it harmed Athenian interests. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the Athenians convicted Demosthenes because they believed he had injured the city or whether they sacrificed "him on the altar of prudence", as Brun puts it; either way, the city was following traditional practice (284).

In conclusion, Brun charts the events that paved the way for Demosthenes' transformation into an enduring democratic symbol. To this end, he reviews the ill-fated Greek rebellion from Macedonian rule now known as the Lamian War, which was the occasion for Demosthenes' return from exile. When the war ended, Antipater imposed an oligarchic government on the city and called for the death of leading democratic politicians, including Demosthenes. According to tradition, rather than allowing the Macedonian authorities to seize him, Demosthenes orchestrated his own death at the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Caluria in October, 322. Posterity therefore came to worship Demosthenes as a martyr to the democractic cause, at Athens, however, Demosthenes' fellow citizens did not see him as the democratic champion he poses as in his own writings. Significantly, in 307 when the democracy was restored, it was Lycurgus, not Demosthenes, who was chosen as the democratic exemplar. Demosthenes' transformation into anti-Macedonian crusader and democratic symbol had to wait for his nephew to initiate the process forty-two years after his death.

In sum, one of Brun's aims was to produce a readable biography of Demosthenes, and he has succeeded in doing so. It may bother some specialist readers that the bibliography and citations are not exhaustive, and that some major historical works are not discussed at all. But Brun acknowledges this up front, explaining that the work is meant to reach a more general audience. What is particularly interesting and timely about Brun's project is the pervasive exploration and uncovering of what he labels as Manichean views, both in Athenian politics and historical interpretations of the fourth century (e.g., 142, 307). Scholars have been too willing to view the era through the partisan lens Demosthenes' texts create. By revealing the connections between self-promotion and competitive politics in Demosthenes' life and works, this book offers (inter alia) a well-timed case study of polarization, or the prehistory thereof.


1.   See R. Sealey, (1993). Demosthenes and His Time: A Study in Defeat, (Oxford University Press), D. M. MacDowell, (2009), Demosthenes the Orator, (Oxford University Press), I. Samotta, (2010). Demosthenes, (Francke), Ian Worthington, (2012). Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece, (Oxford University Press).
2.   P. Bourdieu, (2000 [1987]), "The biographical illusion," in Identity: A Reader, edited P. du Gay, J. Evans and P. Redman (Sage Publications), 297-303.

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